Let’s Call It Anarchy

Three California college students, majoring in English, in foreign languages, and in economics, philosophy, and political science (respectively), believe that anarchy is the best term to describe a non-politically governed society.

Twenty-two-year-old sophomore Robert E. Gaskins, Jr., is editor of the Los Angeles City College literary magazine. He plans a career in advertising and publications. Gaskins participated in the 1963–1964 Phrontistery held at Rampart College.

Miss Leanna J. Koehn, twenty-two, and also a sophomore at Los Angeles City College, plans to teach at secondary level. She was a Phrontistery participant.

Richard H. Gaskins, nineteen, is a senior at University of Southern California who plans to teach at university level.

All three are graduates of a Comprehensive Course at Freedom School.

We see by the Winter, 1965, number of the Rampart Journal that Robert LeFevre has decided to call himself an autarchist. LeFevre offers two reasons for this decision: 1. he cannot possibly be an anarchist since he is not a socialist, and 2. he feels that the label autarchy best describes his free-market position. While these ideas are thought-provoking, we think that Mr. LeFevre is mistaken on both points. (¶ 1)

The crucial element in Mr. LeFevre's first line of defense is his insistence on some inextricable link between anarchism and socialism. He never tells us if socialism is an unshakeable part of the logic of the anarchist point of view; instead, he provides a careful check of anarchist writings which shows that nearly all anarchists of the past have also been socialists. Mr. LeFevre evidently realizes that his historical approach fails to establish any logical connection between the two doctrines, and so he adds an extremely important interpretive judgment: The anarchist is correctly included in the socialist movement because of his central purpose of intervening in the economy (emphasis added). (¶ 2)

This judgment is essential to Mr. LeFevre's argument, but it is questionable indeed. From our reading, we have reached a different point of view: it seems to us that the central purpose of the anarchist is and has been to deny the necessity or utility of the state, the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion (Mises), and not to apply force to the market place. Anarchy is thus a political term, not an economic one; it refers to the location of the decision-making power, not to the character of the decisions made. Since the anarchist's fundamental goal is the abolition of political authority, his economic ideas are merely incidental predictions of which economic system is most likely to prosper in an atmosphere of freedom. Any specific economic doctrine is, in Tucker's phrase, not a decree, but a prophecy. (¶ 3)

The fact that most anarchists have also been socialists can be better interpreted as the result of an historical accident. The accident is this: the anarchists were forced to select their economic ideas long before the marginalists successfully explained the self-regulating characteristics of the free market. (¶ 4)

In the first half of the nineteenth-century the anarchists had decided that the state should be abolished, and were then called upon to say what economic organization would prevail in the absence of political authority. They required some economic theory which would avoid the gloomy predictions of the Ricardians and still not encourage the power of the nation-state. Capitalism was not for them a real choice, because the key to the dynamic, self-regulating nature of capitalism was the breakthrough of marginal utility analysis--an event which took place in the second half of the century, after the anarchists had committed themselves. Without this key, it is understandable that the anarchists failed to recognize that the institutions of capitalism provide a natural organization of the unhampered market. (¶ 5)

Consider the dates. Although the 1870's are selected as the decade of the discovery of marginal analysis, the implications of this discovery remained unknown outside the classrooms of three or four universities. The European anarchist movement was already attached to certain economic ideas by this time; the American movement was in its great period of growth (the publication of Tucker's Liberty may be taken as a gauge of the strength of anarchist influence in America, and its dates are 1881–1907). In other words, by 1880 anarchism had become a social movement and its doctrines were no longer subject to refinement. But the work of Jevons and Marshall did not reach this country until the 1890's, the first translations of Böhm-Bawerk were available only after 1900, and not even small sections of Menger's writings were translated until just a few years ago. (This information can be verified by consulting the catalogues of the British Museum and the Library of Congress.) More important, it is unlikely that the writings of Jevons, Marshall, Walras, or any of the others would have been able to influence anarchism even before its growth as a social movement began. These works were written for the arm-chair specialist who was well-versed in the differential calculus; chances are these books would have had little effect if they had appeared in time. (¶ 6)

The major weakness in Mr. LeFevre's analysis is his failure to distinguish between the logic of the anarchist position and the usually inconsistent ideas which anarchists have held in the past. His assertion that anarchism and socialism are somehow inextricably linked is only a rather shaky inference from the historical situation which we outlined above; it tells us nothing about the logical implications of the anti-statist political viewpoint. (¶ 7)

This confusion seems all the more strange since Mr. LeFevre himself has been one of the major contributors to a consistent reformulation of the anti-statist point of view: his usual message is that political freedom and economic liberalism are logically inseparable--that socialism is incompatible with anti-statism. If, as we feel, opposition to the state has been the fundamental guiding purpose of nearly all those we call anarchists, then Mr. LeFevre's writings clearly show that he not only shares in the central purpose of anarchism, but that he is one of the most consistent and sophisticated anarchists on record. The fact that he is not a socialist is what makes him so consistent, just as the fact that he opposes the existence of the state is what makes him an anarchist. (¶ 8)

We now take up the question as to whether anarchy should give way to autarchy as a name for the anti-statist, free-market position. Our aim in choosing one word or the other is to communicate, accurately, with as many people as possible; and to do so we must select the word that is generally accepted as conveying the meaning we wish to express. This is not a question on which every man is entitled to his own opinion. In matters of language, the tyranny of the majority is absolute. (¶ 9)

The way in which we determine the will of the majority in matters of usage is to consult the records of how each word has been used. The most extensive compilation of this kind (and by far the most reliable guide) is the great Oxford English Dictionary, the OED. It gives the following information under the entry Autarchy: 1. Absolute sovereignty, despotism. 2. Self-government. This second meaning is Mr. LeFevre's intended usage, but unfortunately the OED records no use of the word in this sense after 1691 A.D. The plain fact is that the word has been dead as self-government for 275 years. The Merriam-Webster Third International defines autarchy as despotism or economic nationalism only, the meaning also used consistently by Mises in his works. (This last point is important because, after Mises has accepted the word's current meaning, we could only introduce ambiguity if we tried to redefine the word.) (¶ 10)

Mr. LeFevre says in his article that he realizes that dictionaries do not support his usage, but that the despotism they refer to must be self-despotism because of the derivation of autarchy. He says that auto means self and that -archy means rule, so therefore the compound must mean self-rule. This is precisely equivalent to believing that a redcoat is a jacket of crimson color, which can be defended by the same process of reasoning. Words acquire meanings by usage, not by etymology; today a redcoat is a British soldier and autarchy is despotism, whatever the two words may have meant in the past. (¶ 11)

Let us see, then, if anarchy suits our purpose of communication any better. Under Anarchy the OED records: 1. Absence of government; a state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder. (This usage is illustrated with quotations from 1539 to 1878.) At first glance the reference to political disorder would seem to disqualify anarchy since disorder is no part of the peaceful, voluntary cooperation we envision. This, however, is not the latest information. (¶ 12)

The volume of the OED containing anarchy was prepared for publication in January, 1884. Other sections were published over the next 45 years, the final one appearing in 1928. At that time the editors realized that many words had undergone changes in usage during the period of publication, and they prepared a supplement to bring the earlier portions of the work up to date. (¶ 13)

In the supplement, Volume 13, published in 1933, we find that autarchy has not been resurrected; it is not even mentioned in the supplement. Anarchy, though, has undergone a significant change in meaning; the OED records it as follows: Anarchy. Add: 1b. A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without implication of disorder). It is in that last phrase that the OED records the sense shift: anarchy has since 1891 achieved currency as a term that does not imply disorder. And, now that we have the word in the sense we want, there is an urgent reason to use it: it (like autarchy) will die if we neglect it, and the partisans of the free market may once again be in the situation of 1691–1891 with no word to describe themselves. (¶ 14)

From these references, the following should be clear: If we choose to call our position autarchy, we are merely obscuring communication with medieval terminology. But if we choose anarchy we have a live word with a sense that describes our position perfectly; we can communicate with the world, and not withdraw from it into a language of our own making. (¶ 15)

It may be difficult for individualists to bow to the will of the majority, but in this instance we gain a very real advantage by doing so: we are enabled to enter into a dialogue with the rest of the scholarly community, rather than withdrawing into Autism. Morbid admiration of oneself (OED). (¶ 16)